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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2002

No Parting Gifts

Victor Catano
Jean Chrétien - now that he has announced the date of his retirement - is seeking to establish his legacy as prime minister. Many big-ticket items were floated in the run-up to the Throne Speech. These proposals, if enacted, could lock spending into the budget for the next five years, effectively tying the hands of any successor. Regrettably, restoring funding for post-secondary education is apparently not on the prime minister's spending list. Mr. Chrétien should listen to the concerns of post-secondary students and their parents before drawing up plans for the future.

During the period of Mr. Chrétien's government, Ottawa significantly decreased the money it transferred to the provinces for support of university core operating budgets. The provincial governments were quick to follow suit by passing on the cuts to colleges and universities. Statistics Canada data released in September show that the share of university revenue from government sources dropped from more than 68 per cent in 1990-1991 to less than 55 per cent in 2000-2001. Ontario and Nova Scotia universities now receive less than half of their funding from public sources. This is privatization of public education by stealth.

Universities inevitably make up the shortfall in public funding by increasing tuition. Since 1990-1991 university tuition across Canada has increased by 135.4 per cent, compared to a cost of living increase of 20.6 per cent. These increases are turning more students from lower-and middle-income families away from university education. Fee increases have been even higher in professional schools. As these increases continue, Canadian universities will return to their elitist roots, a rather inappropriate legacy for the "Little Guy from Shawinigan."

What has been the government's response to these damning statistics? Silence, or worse yet, blaming parents for not saving enough. This was the approach taken recently by a spokesperson for Human Resources Development Canada who chastised parents for procrastinating in saving for their children's education. This response betrays a mind-set that sees university education as belonging to the sons and daughters of the wealthy. The savings programs the federal government has put in place do not help lower- and middle-income families. The Canada Education Savings Plan provides a maximum $400 top-up of private money placed into Registered Education Savings Plans.

According to Statistics Canada, the parents of less than 19 per cent of children in households earning below $30,000 are saving for their children's education, in comparison to the parents of nearly 63 per cent of children in households earning $80,000 or more. Telling parents, who are struggling to raise families, pay the rent and put food on the table to put money away for their children's education 18 years down the road borders on the obscene.

The Canada Millennium Scholarship Fund is not an answer to rising tuition and backbreaking debt loads. This scholarship fund provides assistance to only one out of every 14 post-secondary students. Canada is one of the few industrialized countries that does not have a national grant system that makes assistance available based on need. With governments committed to innovation, it is surprising they are willing to screen out the many bright graduates who cannot afford the costs of post-secondary education.

Other nations recognize that improving access to post-secondary education must be a priority. Ireland recently announced plans to expand its student financial aid program by doubling the amount of non-repayable maintenance grants offered to 40 per cent of the country's students to cover their living costs. These grants are in addition to abolishing tuition. I recall most vividly the joy and enthusiasm of a Dublin taxi driver whose son could now go to university, after tuition was abolished. I also recall with sadness the stories of very bright students who have had to drop out of my own university because of lack of money.

Canadians expect admission to university to be based on ability and merit, not wealth. These views came out very strongly during several radio talk shows I did following release of the Statistics Canada data on tuition. The vast majority of Canadians from all political backgrounds support more funding for post-secondary education and are even prepared to pay for it through higher taxes.

The evidence, both in Canada and abroad, demonstrates that increasing access to education provides clear benefits, enriching both individuals and society at large. Education makes a fundamentally vital contribution to the quality and well-being of Canadian society. Widening opportunities for all qualified Canadians to participate in post-secondary education has many benefits in strengthening democracy, achieving social and economic progress and advancing human rights. Our failure to remove the barriers that prevent any person from attaining the education that will enable them to participate fully in our social and economic life is the equivalent of burying a fortune of opportunities. We simply cannot afford to leave this treasure in the ground to decay.

CAUT is committed to increasing accessibility to post-secondary education and making it the centerpiece of a public awareness campaign. Working together with students and their parents, perhaps we can convince Mr. Chrétien that the best way for him to establish his legacy as prime minister is by ensuring future generations of Canadians will still have access to post-secondary education.